There are plenty of books on the lives of men from their time as American slaves through freedom, but women? Not so much. An associate professor of history at UC Irvine fills that vacuum with her book being published today, Finding Charity's Folk: Enslaved & Free Black Women in Maryland (University of Georgia Press).
“Charity Folks is a ghost of slavery who refuses to be silenced,” author Jessica Millward writes of the woman who was a slave until the age of 40 and existed only as a name on a 1797 document that granted her freedom. Millward found that document in the Maryland State Archives and decided to “listen to the silences” to uncover Folks' story.
For 15 years, the professor pieced together the fragments of Folks’ life, incorporating personal accounts, oral history, photos and artifacts–all found outside the archives–to paint a full picture of her subject. Millward believes she captured a genealogy that might otherwise have been lost to time.
She discovered Folks had five children, amassed at least four properties in Annapolis, and had such distinguished descendants as the Rev. Hutchens Chew Bishop (1858-1937), who served as rector of New York City’s St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, one of the country’s largest and most important Episcopal churches.
“Our knowledge of the enslaved tends to be male-dominated and focused on those who have fled bondage, such as Frederick Douglass, or those who have plotted rebellions, such as Nat Turner,” Millward observes. “Charity Folks’ story gives us new insight into the world of enslaved women, taking us through the range of lived experiences–from reproduction to motherhood, experiences with power and legal culture, from bondage to freedom, and what life can look like after slavery.”
Millward writes in her book's epilogue: “If the story of Charity Folks and other enslaved women is any indication, what we do matters. The stories of enslaved women and black women more generally are crucial to our understanding of the long arc of the fight for freedom.”